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Fang Shihan and Fiona Lim attend a JBJ memorial.

A subdued commemoration at Speaker’s Corner

Fang Shihan and Fiona Lim

The commemoration of JB Jeyaretnam’s birthday was a quiet affair. Held in the historic Hong Lim Park, the speakers took their turns on the mound of soil functioning as a soap box while surrounded by soccer players and tai-chi enthusiasts.

Amidst the flurry of familiar activities, one could almost say that the 30-40 strong politically related, non-partisan event operated on the fringe and was hardly noticeable. It was like how JB Jeyaretnam (JBJ) was remembered; a lone figure, an anomaly, standing firm to his beliefs while the world passed him by.

Everyone had a JBJ story to tell. Some met him when he was selling his books outside Raffles City to pay off his debts, incurred through countless battles with the establishment. Others encountered the JBJ symbol through the press. As Justin Ong, Head of the Reform Party Youth Wing observed: “[JBJ] was the conscience of Singapore.”

One by one, starting with Dr. James Gomez formerly with the Worker’s Party, speakers were invited to share their personal experiences with the late JBJ, and even how he affected the political climate of Singapore. Rushing down from the courthouse, Dr. Chee Soon Juan gave word to remember JBJ’s tenacity as he never backed down to tyranny.

By this time, the sun had set. All was dark but for a single glow from a torch, borrowed from the audience to light up the letter Mr. Leong Sze Hian had written a year ago, addressing the condescending tone of PM Lee’s condolence letter to JBJ’s family, after he had passed on. It was titled “How not to write a condolence letter”.

As Mr. Kenneth Jeyaratnam recalled, it was an appalling letter. The government had assassinated JBJ by portraying him as a man out to destroy the establishment. JBJ, until today, is still used as a bogeyman. He also mentioned that a scholarship chair in his name was denied.

And then the youth took over. Artist and activist, Seelan Palay recounted an instance when he had been overwhelmed by the sheer presence of JBJ and could not muster the courage to speak to the man. He was 16 then. Jarrod Luo and Muhd Khalis of the Young Democrats urged the youth to carry on the legacy that JBJ left behind. “Let us, the younger generation, bring to fruition what you’ve started many years ago," said Jarrod.

Recalling the historic Anson by-elections, which saw JBJ breaking the 14 year PAP monopoly within the political system, Mr. Goh Meng Seng remembered that the opposition then had to operate within a climate of fear. There was a common saying then which to some extent, still exists now: “Don’t talk bad about the government or the mata [police] will come”.

Villified by the establishment and ignored by mainstream society, JBJ has left a legacy of operating with persistence, even in the most inhospitable of conditions. Some speakers lauded JBJ as a symbol of democracy while others, like Justin, maintained that politics should be about “policies, not personalities”.

As the nightfall set in and the soccer players packed up, two women approached the stage out of curiosity after their tai-chi class.

“Wah. Opposition,” said one of them, before wiping her face with a towel, then walking away. The other stood just for a minute more.

For a moment, the politics of Singapore fit in well with everyday life with the spheres of the mundane and opposition politics co-existing, but hardly interacting.

The audience, consisting of the usual activists, party members, party supporters, New Paper reporters and surprisingly some secondary school students, was offered a candle each, to end the commemoration.

Selected JBJ Birthday Memorial speeches: